HTLS 2020: Assessing risks and countering security threats in the new era

Two major terrorist attacks in the first decade of the 21st Century displayed paradigm shifts in tactics and methodology. The 9/11 attack emanated from a global terror alliance in pursuit of a virulent fundamentalist ideology. This led to security agencies tracing the leads of non-state actors determined to carry out such attacks globally.
Law enforcement agencies, trying to keep up with the latest technology on internet-based platforms, want to play it safe by gathering maximum data on their suspects and targets.(ANI file photo)
Law enforcement agencies, trying to keep up with the latest technology on internet-based platforms, want to play it safe by gathering maximum data on their suspects and targets.(ANI file photo)
Updated on Dec 09, 2020 06:58 AM IST
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ByYashovardhan Azad

The South Asia Terrorism Portal cites 2019 as the year witnessing the least number of fatalities from terrorist attacks in India since 2000. Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) and the North-east saw steep decline in such incidents and left-wing extremism shrunk appreciably both in geographical spread and intensity.

This trend has continued in 2020, but carries in its wake the warning not to lower the guard for the future. International terrorist groups such as Islamic State (IS) and al Qaeda want to extend their footprints to India. The Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Hizbul Mujahideen cadres assiduously target India, riding on the back of Pakistan’s sustained efforts. The year has also seen the highest number of ceasefire violations at the Line of Control, with implications for internal security.

Two major terrorist attacks in the first decade of the 21st Century displayed paradigm shifts in tactics and methodology. The 9/11 attack emanated from a global terror alliance in pursuit of a virulent fundamentalist ideology. This led to security agencies tracing the leads of non-state actors determined to carry out such attacks globally. The 26/11 attack was choreographed from across the border, with the handlers directing terrorists on Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) for undertaking actions on the ground. This became a template for later attacks, most notably the revenge killing by the al Qaeda in Paris on January 7, 2015, against the publishing of Charlie Hebdo cartoons.

Though lone-wolf attacks across Europe are grim reminders of the residual capability of IS and al Qaeda, security agencies are more occupied grappling with new-age threats to national security. Technology, coupled with social media, and deepening ideological fault lines constitute a potent threat to national security. The combination of these elements has led to tools of terrorism becoming cheaper, accessible and deployable. This is the ultimate nightmare for a nation, as it transits from countering conventional risks to tackling threats in the new era. The use of the internet for communication, propaganda, recruitment, planning and execution of terrorist actions has led to surveillance of the web by security agencies, spawning the debate between right to privacy and safeguarding national security. The global call for jihad through the internet lured a number of radicalised Indian youth post-2012 to go to Afghanistan and Syria to fight their ideological enemies. None of them was inspired by local issues. The return of many such disillusioned young people back home led to a wealth of information on the sophisticated use of internet-based communication by the terror groups such as al Qaeda and the IS.

Law enforcement agencies, trying to keep up with the latest technology on internet-based platforms, want to play it safe by gathering maximum data on their suspects and targets. Since encrypted data does not afford access, they seek backdoors which the service providers vehemently deny. Breaking encryption weakens the entire communication grid, making it vulnerable to outside attacks. In the case of a well-known face-off between the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Apple, the former demanded unlocking of the phone of a dead shooter to elicit information. The matter went to court, but Apple refused to budge. Later, FBI withdrew its case citing success in breaking the code with the help of a third party. Apple stated that it owed to customers their data protection and privacy.

Technology is a double-edged sword. Great strides in technology have enhanced the quality of life and longevity, while weapons of mass destruction seek to do just the opposite. Use of drones in the fields of medical, agriculture and disaster management is proving to be highly beneficial but their deployment for terror acts is also lethal. Pakistan drones ferry across drugs and weapons regularly into India. Drones can pose a major threat to VIP security and India has taken suitable measures to counter this threat. Near impossible access to complex technology in earlier times made terrorist groups look towards benefactors such as Pakistan, which was sponsoring terrorism as a part of its avowed national agenda. But today, the internet offers cheap access to information on homemade chemicals and bombs. 3D printers are used to make revolvers, too.

Security agencies, keeping in mind the latest terror tactics, play it safe and present the worst-case scenarios for the future to structure appropriate responses. But the flip side is the immense cost involved in developing security architecture to counter these various deadly scenarios. Most attacks in the past few years are of low-tech variety, using weapons or bombs. The al Qaeda and IS cadres have reportedly been directed to “keep it simple”. Intelligence agencies will therefore have to take risks and project realistic threat assessments of the future, otherwise the costs of security will outweigh the gains. How does India patrol its cyberspace to ward off attacks of cyberterrorism, which is aimed at destroying its critical data infrastructure? The National Critical Information Infrastructural Protection Centre (NCIIPC) is meant for the protection of six critical sectors. Any attack on one of them is categorised as an act of cyberterrorism. India also has a programme for reporting of cyber vulnerabilities in systems or software under the Responsibility Vulnerability Disclosure Program run by NCIIPC. Greater awareness and efforts are visible in protection of our critical data to ward off cyber-attacks. Finally, for a country as diverse as India, the old adage “Unity in Diversity” has served as a sound security doctrine. The weakening of this doctrine, as witnessed in recently emerging social fault lines, will give rise to new security challenges. Fake news and disinformation have become potent tools of attack. Even advanced democracies are facing divisive slogans and appeals. Bot farms can create thousands of social media accounts to weaponise information by unleashing a flurry of vituperative and vicious propaganda material — for causing civil strife and disruption. A robust democracy need not fear information warfare but then India should remain one to ward off such attempts at the destabilisation of its polity.

Yashovardhan Azad is a retired Indian Police Service officer who served as Special Director, Intelligence Bureau, and Secretary, Security in Government of India. He has also been a Central Information Commissioner. The views expressed are personal.

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Sunday, December 05, 2021